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The Despair of William Cowper

William Cowper (1731-1800)

Despite recurring mental illness, he wrote hymns on God's providence.

William Cowper's poetic achievements are remarkable in light of the fact that mental illness plagued him all his life.

The son of the chaplain to King George II, William worked as a lawyer for several years. At age 32, he was nominated to a position that required a public examination. He grew fearful of that and tried to commit suicide three times--and nearly succeeded. During his stay of eighteen months in the asylum at St. Albans, however, Cowper was converted while reading Romans.

After his release, Cowper resided in Huntingdon with the family of a Reverend Unwin. Upon Unwin's death, John Newton came to comfort the family, and he convinced Mrs. Unwin, her children, and Cowper to move to Olney where he lived.

The period at Olney was a time of healing and spiritual growth for Cowper. Newton urged Cowper to serve Olney's poor, probably in an effort to take Cowper's mind off his depressions, poor health, paranoia, and fears of damnation. He also convinced Cowper to write hymns for the parish's prayer meetings. The result was Olney Hymns (1779), which contained 348 hymns--68 by Cowper, who suffered a relapse and was unable to finish his work.

Three of his best-known works are "There Is a Fountain," "Safely through Another Week," and "O for a Closer Walk with God." His famous hymn "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" was written about the time of another bout of mental illness, during which Cowper again attempted suicide. Despite this, John Newton said of him, "I can hardly form an idea of a closer walk with God than he uniformly maintained."

Cowper did not begin his literary career until age 50. His translations of Homer and poems such as "John Gilpin" placed him at the forefront of English poets, and it is the literary Cowper now listed in reference books.

But perhaps Cowper's most meaningful works were the hymns written during fits of despair. It is said that on his deathbed he stated, "I am not shut out of heaven after all."

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